“The Founder,” a movie about Oak Parker Ray Kroc and the building of his McDonald’s empire, seems unlikely to be very successful. Even on a Friday night, the seats in the audience at the Lake Theater were perhaps 20% occupied. A movie like this, a movie about a salesman and his business, is a hard sell. We enjoyed it a great deal, but part of that enjoyment was due, in part, to the fact that I’ve been doing contract writing for McDonald’s since 1985. I remain in awe of Kroc and his accomplishments, but I rather suspect that most theater-goers will not share my enthusiasm for the “founder” of the world’s best known fast food chain.
Kroc bought the McDonald’s “Speedee Service System” of preparing and selling hamburgers from brothers Dick and Mac McDonald who started the first McDonald’s drive-in in San Bernardino, California. So how does Kroc get away with calling himself the founder? He just does. Those are his alternative facts, as is the claim that the Desplaines McDonald’s is the #1 McDonald’s restaurant, when clearly that honor belongs to the San Bernardino location. You don’t get to the top without getting a little dirty.
In the movie, the McDonald brothers are persuaded to let Kroc franchise the business after he gives them a short sermon about how every town in the country has a church with a cross on top and a city hall with a flag in front. McDonald’s, he believed, would leverage the American impulse to come together, not in a church or in some civic gathering, but in a restaurant.
Stopping by the River Forest McDonald’s on Harlem around 6pm last Friday, it seemed that Kroc’s vision of a social meeting place was still a reality. There were large tables of young black and white kids (at separate tables, but still), some older dudes like me, and behind the counter, pretty much all Mexican workers. I had to wonder what the effect of President Trump’s tightening immigration policy would have on Mexican workers in fast food as well as higher end restaurants, where Mexicans frequently make up a disproportionate percentage of the kitchen staff.
In line with our president’s fixation on things “huge,” McDonald’s has recently rolled out an ever bigger Big Mac: the Grand Mac. This new burger is basically just a Big Mac, only bigger. My friend Nick Kindelsperger at the Chicago Tribune feels that the Grand Mac is “better proportioned,” with perhaps a higher meat-to-condiments/bun ratio. That may be, but both the Big Mac and Grand Mac are remarkably soft sandwiches with very little textural contrast between bread and hamburger. And for the love of god, why can’t McDonald’s superb cooking technology ever manage to get the cheese melted on their cheeseburgers.
When Michael Keaton, who portrays Ray Kroc, bites into a McDonald’s hamburger for the first time, he exclaims, “This is the best hamburger I’ve ever had.” In those early days, McDonald’s hamburgers were made of fresh meat, hand-formed, and they were probably pretty good. Now, they’re fine, but I don’t think many people will proclaim them the best they ever had.
And “The Founder”? It’s fine, but I don’t think many people will proclaim it the best movie they’ve ever seen. For me, though, it’s still kind of thrilling to see the way local boy Kroc has a vision for something big and wonderful and then makes it happen. Of course, this is no hagiography, and St. Ray does not come across completely clean: he dumped his wife of many years to chase after another man’s wife, may have dealt with the McDonald brothers in ways that were less than honorable, and sometimes had to cut corners on quality to keep returning profits to investors. But business heroes are many times full of such character flaws.
Eating my Grand Mac, I was amused to see the tagline, pictured on the box above, “You’re going to need two hands.” This, of course, seems a “borrow” from Burger King’s line from the 70s: “It takes two hands to handle a Whopper ‘cuz he burgers are bigger at Burger King.”
To rise in any business, now and again, you may have to steal a little; you may have to do some bad in addition to good; you may have to get your hands dirty.